Mandrake 9.1 - Review from "advanced" user's POV.
Väinö Järvelä - vaino jarvela at pp inet fi
June 3, 2003
Mandrake is known from it's ease of use and configuration tools, and is commonly regarded as a "newbie" distribution. I am a long-time Gentoo user and before that I have used Sorcerer and Debian among others, so I regard myself as an "advanced" Linux user. This review tries to find out how good distribution Mandrake is for "advanced" users.
I didn't want to waste time, CD's, nor bandwidth to download all three CD's. So I downloaded only the first one. The hard disk drive I'm installing Mandrake to, has Gentoo installed on LVM volumes ( /, /boot, /usr, /home, /var, /tmp ). Other than that my computer is very average:
- AMD Duron 600MHz
- Asus A7V -motherboard
- Creative Sound blaster Live! 1024
- NVidia Geforce2 MX400
- Realtek -Ethernet card
- Hewlett-Packard CD-Writer Plus 8100 series
Mandrake has a graphical installer and a text-installer as an option. I chose graphical installer which is the default. Mandrake autodetected my USB Wheel Mouse and LVM volumes. And it automatically set default options correctly in /etc/fstab for installing to my split-up LVM system. Next I could select which partitions to format, I formatted everything but /home. Then installer gives you a choice between different security levels with short summary about whom is the setting good for, but I really missed more in depth information about the security options to know what I'm stepping into. (Security settings are listed at the "Security" section)
Next the installer lets me choose what packages to install. Mandrake has average selection of applications, but there were some packages important for me missing ( wine, mplayer, NVidia drivers ).
[UPDATE - June 4] Adam Williamson informed me, that wine and mplayer(without non-free stuff) are included on the other two CD's. And if you buy the commercial version of Mandrake, you will get NVidia drivers. "the assumption with Mandrake is that you should install off at least two CDs for a normal system, if you install off one it's assumed that you know what you're doing and can add packages for yourself."
Package selection system is okay, the only problem that I had with it is that there are a lot of duplicate packages in the categories. For example Audio -packages that use Gnome might also be in the Gnome category and so on. So the list will show the same package over and over again. When installing packages it suddenly asked for second CD.. I canceled it. Then it asked for third CD and I canceled that too. It didn't complain, just continued with the installation process without installing software from those CD's.
Installer autodetected my graphics adapter, ethernetcard and sound card. I had to input settings for my Panasonic PanaSync S70 monitor manually because the monitor database didn't have it. Installer asked if I use XFree 3 or 4, I don't understand why it asks as I have just installed XFree 4, well.. not really a problem.
Mandrake Linux 9.1 uses LILO as the default boot manager which starts in framebuffer-mode with Mandrake bootsplash background (screenshot) and a progress bar that actually works. The boot up sequence continues with the same background. All kernel messages are suppressed from the boot up, but you can set them to show if you want to. It scans if there are changes in the hardware. When I booted second time, I had removed my CD-ROM drive (which was autodetected as ide-scsi for burning) it informed me that the drive is gone. Only problem with this was that it didn't remove the CD-ROM entry from /etc/fstab. The boot up messages are standard "Starting ??? [OK]" type. "Finding module dependencies" should be optimized a bit if possible as it seems to stuck in that for a while, other than that the boot up sequence is flies away. On my computer the whole boot up sequence takes a good part of a minute.
On the second boot, it hanged to "Setting up LVM". I checked the init.d scripts: It scans LVM's, then scans for RAID and then scans again for LVM to check if there are LVM volumes under RAID. But for some reason this hangs my system, I'll have to do some research on this one. It was easily fixed by booting into the "failsafe" mode and commenting a few lines from the script. My motherboards IDE controller is Promise PDC20265.
By default Mandrake loads KDM, which can be changed to GDM or MdkKDM. If you choose to stay in the console when booting, it leaves the framebuffer-mode on and removes the background.
I chose to try out KDE. Looks pretty nice, very nice font antialiasing. But none of the buttons work! Not even the menu's. I cleared /.kde* and it works fine. I investigated further on this, and it seems that Mandrakes KDE doesn't like SuperL(Mod4) as a Window moving modifier.
On the desktop is links to CD-ROM and floppy mount-points which are maintained by supermount. Supermount is a kernel module that automatically detects if you have inserted CD or diskette (or other removable device) and if you have removed them, so no more mounting and unmounting.
Mandrakes configuration tools are very nice. When you start the configurator(Drakconf) it asks for root password and loads up a configuration menu (screenshot) where you can choose what you want to do. The main categories are: Boot, Hardware, Mount Points, Network Internet, Security, System and Software Management. All the tools works really well, and saves a lot of time from typing the configs. For example: "Set Samba mount points" searches for Samba mounts which you can select to apply to /etc/fstab. The tools are mostly advanced enough to give you choices, for example in "Set Samba mount points" it lets you choose to mount it automatically, what password and username to use and if you want user to be able to (un)mount it.
Firewall options weren't as comprehensive as I would have liked them to be. You can fill checkboxes of services you want to allow on your computer, and in "advanced options" you can define custom ports to allow connections in. The configurator changes Shorewall configuration files.
The only bugs I have had with the configuration tools is with DrakBoot, which doesn't detect if /boot is mounted or not. If it is not mounted, it still tries to install the settings in there and when it doesn't find the kernel defined with the system it just quits the configurator without saying anything. When run from the console it stated the missing file.
The configuration tools doesn't seem to mind that I sometimes manually fiddle with the configurations. All of Mandrakes configuration tools use GTK for it's GUI library.
Now, the phase that I have waited in fear. RPM's, those evil spawns that have ruined my life more than once. I start RpmDrake which is the package installer for Mandrake, more specifically a GUI package selector for URPMI which is supposed to be something that fixes the whole RPM issue. The package list is full of applications but it doesn't have all of the software that I need. Mandrake Linux website is always happy to advertise Mandrake Club and how you can get a lot of applications through it.. I don't want to pay for free software (well, maybe when I get a job). I'll try to contribute otherwise till then. I searched the web for extra packages for Mandrake, and I found "Penguin Liberation Front". On that website you can select mirrors for main Mandrake package repositories and for a few more which has packages that can't be on Mandrake repositories (non-free software etc.). It will generate the commands you'll run to get your selected mirrors to your URPMI repository list. These package repositories got everything I missed and it works well, no dependency problems or anything as RpmDrake/URPMI installs them automatically.
Package Updater doesn't seem to update all packages, just Mandrake security patches etc. So I have to use console to update everything by running `urpmi.update -a` and `urpmi -auto-select`.
Everything that developers need is included. Mandrake separates header files needed for development to -devel packages of libraries. Maybe this saves some space, but for me it is just an extra step when installing libraries that I'm going to use for developing. You can also find sources for all the open source packages from the package mirrors.
Some of the packages are a bit old, but most are pretty much up-to-date. Some are even bleeding-edge. And there is one bleeding-edge program that has been giving me the finger lately: Galeon 1.3.3. Sometimes it just freezes, and couple of times it freezes the whole X. Fortunately it won't take the kernel with it.
So far all of my hardware has worked fine except that I don't want to use Creative's emu10k1 OSS-driver for sound, but this could be switched easily from HardDrake: Select your sound card from the hardware list, click "Run Config" and select snd-emu10k1 driver manually. Mandrake doesn't include NVidia's own binary-drivers but it auto detects XFree86's "nv"-driver. From Texstar repository you can install NVidia's own drivers for the default Mandrake 9.1 kernel without a hitch. NVidia has released new drivers with new installer, which detected the Mandrake 9.1 kernel and installed the drivers for it without needing the source files.
Mandrake 9.1 has a theme called Galaxy, which is supposed to integrate the look of GTK (screenshot) and QT (screenshot). And it does it well, as long as you don't go and change colors manually from just the other one. It would be nice to have some kind of theming program that changes settings for both QT and GTK at the same. I personally don't like the look of the theme and it's round, shadowed, beveled ugly buttons. And it seems that keyboard navigation in QT programs with this theme is quite impossible as drop down-lists won't highlight when tabbing through them. It works fine in GTK though.
The menu's are integrated, with Gnome, KDE and IceWM (probably with the other window managers too, but I didn't test anything else) the menu entries are all the same. The entries are sorted by categories like: Graphics, Office etc. And there is "What to do?" menu entry that has stuff like "Write a document with OpenOffice".
I haven't tried using any printers, scanners or digital cameras. But I have heard that they are all automatically detected when plugged in to USB ports. That is a nice integration point.
Mandrake's security system uses msec, for which you choose from 5 predefined levels of security. Of course you can modify it's configuration files manually for an advanced setup.
Here is a list of what "Security level 5 ( aka. Paranoid system )" does:
The list is from msec's documentation.
- Global security check
- Permissions check
- Suid root file check
- Suid root file md5sum check
- Suid group file check
- Writable file check
- Unowned file check
- Promiscuous check
- Listening port check
- Passwd file integrity check
- Shadow file integrity check
- Warning in syslog
- Warning in /var/log/security.log
- Warning directly on tty
- RPM database checks
- Send the results of checks by mail even if they are empty to show that the checks were run.
- umask 077 ( user = read,write | group = | other = )
- Highly restricted file permission
- All system events additionally logged to /dev/tty12
- System security check every midnight ( crontab ).
- X server doesn't listen for tcp connections
- No autologin
- sulogin in single user
- No direct root login
- No list of users in kdm and gdm
- Password aging at 30 days
- Password history to 5
- Shell history limited to 10
- Shell timeout 900 seconds
- su to root only allowed to members of the wheel group (activated only if the wheel group isn't empty)
Some of the software has Mandrake's own patches with sometimes ups the software version but still listed as older version. Mandrake's patches also seems to add or modify some features of some programs. (These version numbers might be updated from what is on the CD's, and i stripped Mandrakes own version number additions.)
It seems that Mandrake Linux has evolved to a state, that even an advanced user can use it with a joy. Kernel is maybe a bit bloated (1259520 bytes), but the good thing about bloated kernels is that you can change your hardware without the hassle of including more modules in the kernel. *grin* Even though the bloated nature of the kernel, it has been stable for me.
If you want to have native support for commercial applications (RPM), easy configuration and auto detection of hardware and external devices then Mandrake could be the distribution you are looking for.
Remember, whatever distribution you use the software is still the same. So, no distribution isn't going to change your experience a lot from software point of view; maybe some configuration and software installation changes. But from the hardware POV these so called "newbie" distributions are really great thanks to their great auto detection capabilities. Yes, you can configure your hardware quite easily if you know your way around the standard GNU/Linux -system but auto detection is faster.